image 01 Ibu Rini recounting her encounter with the Satpol PP

Ibu Rini recounting her encounter with the Satpol PP

Ibu Rini couldn’t help but burst into a bout of laughter when she recounted her experience of nearly being arrested by the public order officers (Satpol PP) a few years ago. She was sleeping in the area close to the office of Golkar party nearby her squatters’ community one night when the Satpol PP officers ambushed Ibu Rini and her friends. Her friend tried to wake her, but neither of them was able to escape fast enough and ended up being captured and locked inside the Satpol PP vehicle, waiting to be taken to detention facility. Just when they thought it was over, some people from inside the Golkar office noticed the commotion and came out to check what was going on. Realising that some members of the squatters’ community had been captured, they demanded the Satpol PP officers to show their instruction and identify their commanding officers. After a few tense exchanges, the officers eventually let Ibu Rini and her friend go. Now this horrifying experience of nearly being sent to detention centre lives on as a private joke amongst the members of the community living underneath a railway flyover in Cikini area.

Ibu Rini’s misadventure with the Satpol PP is far from an isolated case. In fact, Jakarta is one of the cities with the highest number of people vulnerable to forced evictions. For instance, in 2001 the regional government of Jakarta launched Clean Jakarta policy, which “systematically deprived Jakarta’s already highly vulnerable urban-poor of their homes and livelihoods.” Under the first year of Megawati administration, the number of victims of forced eviction in Jakarta alone was estimated to be 9774 families or 48870 individuals (29322 of whom were women and children). There was little surprise when Indonesia ranked was the top three country with the highest number of forced eviction incidences by the Centre on Housing Rights and Eviction (COHRE) in 2003.

“Of course we are afraid that we will get evicted by the government, but that’s just the way of life here, what else can we do?” Ibu Anisa explained. The squatters’ community Ibu Rini and Ibu Anisa reside in has roughly 30 people. Ibu Rini is Betawi, an ethnic minority in Jakarta. She joined the West Java-dominant community living under this part of the railway flyover when she married her husband Pak Adi, who came from Jonggol, West Java.

image 02 Mas Rafi was born underneath the railway flyover 20 years ago and has been living there since

Mas Rafi was born underneath the railway flyover 20 years ago and has been living there since.

Pak Adi was working as a flower arranger at the nearby Cikini Flowers Market. Ibu Rini, like most other residents of the community, has been a rubbish salvager (pemulung) for almost her entire life. Life is hard in a pemulung squatters’ community. Days often start before the dawn prayer as they need to at least do three long and arduous shifts to make ends meet. As if it’s not already difficult enough, they often need to search hours for some scrapped metals and recyclable rubbish because the competition on the street is fierce. “There are many pemulung living in this area and there are only so much rubbish on the street,” Ibu Rini explained. Some more fortunate pemulung are able to strike up exclusive deals with the nearby office buildings and work as their “official pemulung.” This practice can also be seen in Jakarta’s well off neighbourhoods, where some pemulung managed to gain access to the gated villas as the “official garbage collectors.” But to the rest of the pemulung, streets basically are free for all and recyclable bits of rubbish are scarce resources. “When you put together all the rubbish you collected, they look so big. But after you compressed them at the recycler, they become so tiny,” Ibu Anisa laughed.

Sometimes when they couldn’t make enough, they would need to resort to all sorts of difficult cost-cutting measures in order to survive. For instance, they usually use the service of a small truck owner to move the rubbish they collected to the recycler in Senen for a fee. But when the going gets tough, the pemulung get going, by feet. Without the luxury of the truck, the pemulung would need to drag the heaps of the scarce resources they managed to hunt down in a week all the way to Senen, located roughly 4km away. The limited capacity of the cart means that they would spend the entire day going back and forth between the two locations, under Jakarta’s unforgiving sun and amidst the maddening traffic.

image 03 A boy working as a pemulung in Jakarta

A boy working as a pemulung in Jakarta

Fortunately, some of the locals in the nearby neighbourhood are sympathetic towards the plight of pemulung squatters living under the flyover, and make routine visits to offer some assistance. University students are amongst the most common visitors to the community. “The students from the nearby Bung Karno University would come and give us used cloths from time to time,” ibu Rini said with a smile. Another source of charity comes from the nearby Cut Meutia Mosque. “Once in a while on Friday, the people from the mosque would come and give us some sembako (a colloquial term referring to nine state-defined basic needs for society such as rice, sugar, and kerosene).”

Ramadhan and the election season are usually the best periods in terms of extra income. During the holy fasting month of Ramadhan, the squatters living under the flyover would be invited to attend breakfasting events at the nearby mosques and enjoy free meals there. Furthermore, according to the settlers, the brothers and sisters of the Muslim ummat generally feel more charitable and are willing to give money to them during the holy month.

In addition to Ramadhan, the squatters also “benefit” from the upsurge of money politics during the election season. During the breakfasting events at the mosques nearby, people from various political parties occasionally made appearances to give out amplop, or envelopes containing money. Some members of the community admitted that they were given money from Joko Widodo’s (Jokowi) camp before the presidential election. “We were visited by some members of Jokowi-JK’s campaign team wearing Jokowi’s iconic checkered shirts. They gave each of us Rp.500,000 and asked us to vote for number two,” some members explained. “Salam dua jari,” they laughed. “The entire community supports Jokowi; everyone voted for him,” Pak Budi said with confidence.

image 04 Jokowi campaign materials are everywhere in the community

Jokowi campaign materials are everywhere in the community

Apart from the hardship of working as pemulung, the squatters had another problem from the government to contend with – forced eviction and frequent harassment from the Satpol PP officers. Not long after Ibu Rini’s first husband passed away, the community was forcefully evicted by the government from their home near Cikini Flowers Market. “Life was very difficult during that time,” Ibu Rini recalled. Not only did she just lose her husband and an important source of subsistence, she also lost their home and had to move from one place to another. The “illegal” nature of the squatters means that the government does not provide any compensation or assistance to the victims of forced eviction. As such most of them can only resort to “temporary housing options,” usually in the form shabby tents next to the railroads, empty spaces underneath the bridge or next to the river, until they are evicted again.

Experts from the Human Rights Watch (HRW) argue that the cyclical nature of these forced evictions “illustrates the sheer futility of conducting evictions without adequate consultation and compensation.” Yet demands to protect the rights of the urban poor facing forced eviction tend to fall on deaf ears.

The government of Jakarta often justifies forced eviction on the basis of development and public order. According to the HRW, the government of Jakarta has been evicting illegal settlers with the argument that the lands in question are needed for infrastructure projects. Echoing this, the Centre on Housing Rights and Eviction, a respected Geneva-based housing rights advocacy group, made similar observation that “efforts by the government to develop cities such as Jakarta still regularly go hand-in-hand with the forced eviction of urban poor communities.” The fact that the vast majority of the victims of forced eviction live on unregistered government lands makes it easier for the government to continue to justify its approach in spite of the criticism from civil society.

In addition to forcefully evicting settlers without compensation, other forms of violations are also widely documented. Gangsters such as members of the Forum Betawi Rempug (FBR) have been reportedly involved in efforts to intimidate to-be-evictees prior to the eviction. The HRW documented a case of intimidation that took place in Kampung Melayu area, where the government was pushing for the expansion of the double tracks system. Pak Setiono reported that the community was terrorised by a group of thugs in plain cloths and armed with pistols for full three months prior to the eviction. Similar violation was documented in the Tanah Merah case by Jakarta Legal Aid Institute (LBH Jakarta). In 2013, roughly 40 families were evicted from a land they’ve been living on for 25 years by Astra Honda Motor Company, which claimed to have the right to use the land until 2016. The company employed gangsters to force the residents to leave despite that the ownership of the land was still in dispute at the court. Unable to put up with constant intimidations from the hired thugs and the Satpol PP officers, the residents eventually left without getting any form of compensation.

Despite the occasional street raids, the squatter community Ibu Rini and Ibu Anisa reside in has been relatively free from government harassment for about seven years. According to ibu Rini, they are relatively safe from forced eviction now because the land they live on is owned by Indonesia’s state-owned railway company Kereta Api Indonesia (KAI). She believes because of this, Satpol PP cannot evict them indiscriminately.

However, such optimism was not shared by another community living on a KAI-own land a short walk from Ibu Rini’s home.

Ibu Dinda, a mother of four, had been living in an abandoned structure underneath a railway flyover in Cikini area for 10 years with her family. Pak Arif, Dinda’s husband, works at a car wash service right outside of their home with fellow members of the community. Although primary education is free in Indonesia, ibu Dinda’s family couldn’t afford to buy textbooks and uniforms for her children. Thus, all of them spent their days as pemulung and wandered the streets of Jakarta looking for recyclable rubbish.

On 15 September, the community received a scanned copy of a letter from KAI informing that they would need to leave their home. In the letter, KAI warned the “illegal settlers” that they will take any action necessary to evict them from KAI’s property – and that the residents had three days to leave. There was no prior communication between the residents and the KAI; the letter came as such a surprise that many of the residents did not even believe in its seriousness at the beginning.

image 05 Ibu Dinda with her daughter

Ibu Dinda with her daughter

With such a limited amount of time to find alternative arrangements, most of the members of the community simply conceded to the harsh reality that they would need to live on the street after the eviction. This was far from ideal for Ibu Dinda as she has four small children to take care of. The scarcity of affordable housing forced her family and the settlers of the community to live in on land that they had little claim over. Despite the fact that the settlers had acquired elements of legitimacy, such as receiving electricity from the government and had been living at the same location uncontested for years, when the time came for the government to expand the railway system, they had three days to get out of the way.

The only other option for her was to apply for government’s affordable housing, or Rumah Susun. But such an option was far from viable as Rumah Susun is in high demand, and even the experts at LBH Jakarta conceded that the chances for the residents to get a place are very small. Getting resettled in three days simply belongs to the realm of impossibility. “Even if I get it, it’s going to be very far away from work, and I probably cannot afford to pay for it with the little money I make,” Pak Ahmad, a member of the community explained.

Pak Arif and Ibu Dinda eventually agreed that she should take her three younger children to live with her relatives in Ciwidey – a rural agricultural district in West Java. Her oldest son, the 12-year-old Fajar, will go live with a relative in another city and seek employment there, and Pak Arif will continue to work in Jakarta in order to support her family. Ibu Dinda considered herself lucky as she had met a kind gentleman who offered to pay for her family’s bus tickets to Ciwidey, otherwise she would have had no choice but to live on the streets with her family.

IMAGE 06 Ibu Dinda’s family shared this tiny space with two other groups of people prior to the eviction

Ibu Dinda’s family shared this tiny space with two other groups of people prior to the eviction

Due to the government’s emphasis on infrastructure development, the state-own KAI has been one of the biggest culprits behind forced evictions all over Indonesia. According to LBH Jakarta, the KAI frequently ignored legal procedures vis-a-vis forced eviction. Merchants and settlers are frequently evicted without prior notice, and often without any compensation even in cases where the merchants had rented or even bought their stalls from the management of the stations. Handika Febrian, a LBH Jakarta public defender dealing with urban poverty and forced eviction cases, they are currently involved in multiple class actions against the KAI due to forced evictions. “Just recently KAI forcefully evicted around 400 people in the Tanah Abang area; they are all homeless now,” Handika explained. As railway expansion was promoted as a major policy agenda by the Jokowi-JK team during the presidential campaign, without suitable measures to protect the victims of forced eviction, the situation is likely to persist, if not worsen.

It is true that compared to the previous administrations, the approach Jokowi adopted during his term as the governor of Jakarta appeared to be more humane. In the case of the eviction of the street vendors (kaki lima) in Kota Tua area, for instance, the Jokowi-Ahok administration communicated with the evictees prior to the eviction and offered them solutions such as relocation. The implementation, however, was flawed and many of the street vendors chose to return to the original sites after failing to make ends meet. Furthermore, Jokowi-Ahok’s approach was not consistently carried out either. To remove illegal settlements such as the those along the Ciliwung river and underneath the toll roads, deputy governor Basuki Tjahaja Purnama (Ahok) opted to trade compassion with efficiency: “During the Idul Fitri season, many people will leave to their hometown. We will dismantle all of them,” Ahok explained.

IMAGE 07 Pak Arif and his children enjoyed their last night together in Jakarta

Pak Arif and his children enjoyed their last night together in Jakarta

There’s no doubt that the government must work to improve Indonesia’s often-dilapidating infrastructure and maintain the rule of law. However, it would be a mistake for the incoming Jokowi-JK administration to continue to do so at the expense of Indonesia’s vulnerable urban poor. As Professor David Henley observed in another post, “Jokowi’s vision of the future is in all senses of the word a bourgeois vision, one shaped by his experience as an entrepreneur and an upwardly mobile member of Indonesia’s growing middle class.” In light of Jokowi’s records in city planning, one has to wonder how the urban poor – the people that are most vulnerable to forced eviction and homelessness – fit into his neat vision of bourgeois modernity.

*All the names of the members of the illegal settlements used in this article are not their real names.

Ray Yen is a graduate of the Australian National University’s College of Asia and the Pacific currently living in Jakarta.